Elderly people’s hands supporting each other
According to the Utah Department of Health, suicide is the eighth leading cause of death for Utah residents, with an average of 657 suicides per year. Utah’s suicide rate is consistently higher than the national rate, and more deaths result from suicide than from automobile accidents, breast cancer, or other chronic physical health problems. And according to the Utah Public Health Indicator-Based Information System, suicide is the leading cause of death for youth in Utah.
For Tim Keady, assistant professor of health and wellness at Utah State University Extension in Cache County, suicide prevention is both a professional and a personal responsibility.
“I have experienced both the deep sense of a loss of life and the euphoria of saving a life,” he said.
Keady has been a First Responder and EMT for over 30 years and has responded to many scenes in which patients have sustained traumatic injuries from accidents and situations resulting from a mental health crisis. In many cases, patients felt they had no hope and the pain they were experiencing was without resolution.
“After these experiences, I wanted to improve my ability to assist in prevention efforts,” Keady said. “As an EMT, I was trained to assess a patient’s condition and manage respiratory, cardiac, behavioral health, and traumatic emergencies. But care after these traumatic events can be just as important and is an area that is still evolving.”
Follow-up includes patient education and training, which Keady focuses on as part of his role in USU Extension’s Health Extension: Advocacy, Research, & Teaching (HEART) initiative. HEART’s mission is to educate and reduce the deaths caused by overdose, substance use disorders (SUD) and suicide. The initiative has spearheaded community prevention efforts since 2018, including prescription take-back days, recovery day events and harm reduction training. Efforts target the most vulnerable populations, which include veterans, chronic pain sufferers, youth, those with mental illness, the depressed, the hopeless and the homeless, among others.
Keady said his group teaches community members basic advocacy skills for people with SUDs and those at risk of suicide. The team provides harm reduction training and skill-building opportunities for individuals and groups, as well as organizational support for community coalitions and nonprofit organizations. They also offer education and training on naloxone (aka narcan), a drug that can reverse opioid overdoses.
“Naloxone can literally be a lifesaver if people know how to administer it,” he said. “We also conducted training on manual CPR and educated people on available resources in the community to turn to in an emergency.”
Keady said that because of this community training, his team has seen lives saved — including those who have committed suicide, had a SUD, or both. He said in the case of naloxone administration, there is a lasting effect on both the person who overdosed and the person who administered the drug.
“This can be a life-changing experience that proves to both of you that you’re worth it,” Keady said. “Self-esteem is difficult to improve in despondent people who are without any form of hope. The delivery of this drug and knowing simple first responder skills can transform lives, including the lives of those administering it.”
Keady said the HEART team’s goal is to train community members to feel comfortable taking any form of action in an emergency, whether it’s naloxone training for a SUD or talking to someone who may have suicidal thoughts.
He said the Liveonutah.org website states: “You have the power to save a life. If you think someone is considering suicide, ask them! Asking questions does not increase the likelihood of a suicide attempt and can save their lives.”
According to Keady, this motto fits well with the HEART team’s training. Friends, family, and community members should not be afraid to ask questions and reach out to people they are concerned about.
“We have to keep people alive to get them the treatment and help they need,” he said.
Susan Madsen, founding director of USU’s Utah Women & Leadership Project, is the author of a recent research paper on women and suicide in Utah. She said for every suicide-related death, there are 25 attempted suicides and even more people who are seriously contemplating suicide.
The report provides several recommendations for reducing suicidal behavior among girls and women in Utah that apply to all. Some include: 1) Avoid normalizing or glorifying suicide, and emphasize that many individuals who have considered or attempted suicide have lived healthy, normal lives. 2) Create preventive messages that promote hope and healing through empathy, warmth, and inclusivity while avoiding negative language and judgment. 3) Teaching coping skills, problem-solving strategies, communication and resilience training. 4) Enhance gender-sensitive training for existing programs and resources such as the Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition, Live On Campaign, and Crisis Helplines. 5) Increase connectivity by fostering healthy social connections, meaningful, supportive relationships, and inclusion.
Another focus of the HEART team is reducing prejudice and stigma surrounding suicide and SUDs. Keady said his team recently interviewed four community members for National Recovery Month in October. All shared that they know treatment is possible and can be successful. Still, the stigmas they feel in relationships, housing, jobs, and finances make it difficult for them to feel integrated into society, even after treatment is complete. Respondents agreed that we need to normalize conversations about substance abuse and treatment across all communities and at an early age. In order to achieve this, increasing positive communication within families is a crucial factor.
Keady said his team uses an Iowa-based program that strengthens families through communication and building skills between families.
The Strengthening Family Program 10-14 course is a seven-session program that teaches protective parenting and youth skills to improve family relationships, reduce conflict, teach resistance to peer pressure, and reduce risky behaviors, including substance abuse. Sessions teach stress management skills, effective discipline, parenting, planning for the future, and appreciating family. The program was rolled out to select communities throughout Utah through USU Expansion Grants with the help of school districts and local health authorities.
USU Extension vice president Ken White said it was sobering to hear about the high suicide rates in Utah.
“We know a lot of people are struggling with SUDs and other challenges and they need someone to turn to,” he said. “We are grateful that our HEART team and other outreach programs are targeting these vulnerable populations and providing them with education and lifesaving programs. When a life is saved, these programs really make a difference.”
Keady said even after his 30 years as a first responder, it’s still amazing that community members express their gratitude for being able to save a life because of the training they received from Extension programs.
“Having a person who believes they are without hope and expresses their gratitude for being given the skills and resources needed for continued progress keeps me involved in this work,” Keady said. “It’s extremely rewarding.”